The Lion & the Eagle #1 centers on the boredom common to military life, a time of speculation and soldier’s stories. The punctuations of the terror are confined to memories and an epigraph. Some might think a war comic should be axiomatic, shoot first, talk later. For co-creators, writer, Garth Ennis, and cartoonist, PJ Holden, to deny the action, military or otherwise, takes the similar sort of intestinal fortitude that can often be found in the combat soldier. Before pinning any medals on either Ennis or Holden for their bravery (if anyone on the creative team deserves recognition, it's letterer Rob Steen) to lay back, it would be equally as foolish to dismiss the first issue of this mini-series as mere table setting so de rigueur in today’s wait-for-the-trade serialized comics. That said? There’s still too much damn talking in this comic.
Ennis has long been a cottage industry of war comics and although none of this work is likely to be available on streaming platforms like much of his other well-known work, more’s the pity. War comics à la Ennis are often top-notch storytelling that focus on a small group of fighting men whose actions resonate beyond their current (and desperate) situations with enough context to allow for discovery and to remind the reader that past is prologue. War stories require geographic and political scorecards in order to keep all the players straight in the face of current politics. Here Ennis drops readers into Burma in 1944 where the Chinese are allied with the British (and Americans) and the Japanese are the most feared fighting force the world has ever seen. Ennis chooses to go full-Gottlieb with the Japanese and only show the aftermath of their fury and ferociousness.
On a vast airfield – made vaster by The Lion & The Eagle’s oversized prestige format – a British Army Officer, Colonel Keith Crosby, and Major Teng Sun-hui of the Chinese National Army smoke and joke about politics, nationalism, colonialism, globalization and the Just War Theory. These two fighting men find themselves on the eve of a rarely reported on mission in the under reported theatre (mainland Asia) of The Second World War. Crosby is a Chindit, a member of a British special forces unit whose express purpose was the death of any and all Japanese who crossed their path. Teng is in Burma as an observer and to make sure the white guys treat the Japanese with extreme prejudice. He tells Crosby a story about the brutality of the Japanese, how they've experimented and tortured Chinese captives, including his mother. “They must be stopped, or driven out of China by whatever means,” says this Chinese Colonel Kurtz. By having Teng tell the story of Japanese atrocities, Ennis brings in a touch of unreliability. That's not to say Teng isn't telling the truth, perhaps he is, the point Ennis makes is to heighten the fear of the Japanese in both Crosby and the reader and reinforce why they should be given no quarter.
In the Chindit, Ennis has found the perfect metaphor to examine the shifting landscapes of Post-World War II global politics. Chindit is the Western bastardization of the Burmese word for lion, chinthe. There is also a mistaken belief, which Ennis has Crosby repeat, that the Chinthe is a mythical shapeshifter, while not (entirely) false, it gives the comic its title and adds to the emphasis on the occupied and the occupier, which is where Ennis focuses much of the narrative’s opening.
Allegiances and alliances (both political and historical) permeate The Lion & the Eagle. In the first panel Teng calls out England’s occupation of India and the “differences” between the British army and its Indian counterpart. Good colonialist that he is, Crosby responds that “they’re used to it, we’ve had India for hundreds of years,” he then compliments “my Gurkhas,” to which Teng says, “I’m sure in an arrangement that works out well for all concerned.” Ennis doesn’t let 1940’s Chinese politics go unremarked upon either. As the two men part company, Crosby mentions, “the internal conflict in China—you know between your own chaps the communists under Mao.” Teng coolly responds, “we’ll deal with Mao when the time comes, believe me.” As necessary as it is to separate the politics and attitudes of the past with those of today via Crosby (both England and the West) Ennis’s choice to have his fictional Chinese attaché misjudge Mao falls flat. Ennis saves himself, and Teng, perhaps, when Crosby says, “he was wrong about Mao, as it turned out. Or perhaps he was right in a way he hadn’t considered.” Ennis is usually smarter than to fall into such a rhetorical trap.
This tête-à-tête turns out to be a story being told over dinner and drinks by Crosby to his friend and future brother-in-law, Doctor Alistair Whitamore R.A.M.C who is attached to the Chindits. Whitamore is the conscience of the comic, a Stephen Maturin transposed to the jungles of Asia. In this “My-Dinner-with-Andre-moment,” Crosby plays his part as the stereotypical stoic stiff upper lip Brit who, as he shares his encounter with Teng, marvels at the Major’s insight and open-mindedness. Whitamore calls out his interlocutor’s surprise (and prejudice), “because he [Teng] isn’t a white man.” Crosby admits as much stating, “I’m hardly alone in that, am I?” Finding a British Army officer during Word War II who wasn’t casually racist would be like looking for an honest man in parliament, as the saying goes. It’s a slightly cheap play, but if Ennis is going for verisimilitude in uniforms and ordnance than mid-twentieth century attitudes about non-native-English-speaking people should be part of the package too.
Crosby and Whitamore have more in common than their shared zeal for King and Country, they have been bonded in blood and battle. And here, finally, is where Holden gets to draw more than talking heads attached to hands holding cigarettes. Intercut between Crosby and Whitamore’s dinner conversation about the “progressive” thoughts of Major Teng are scenes of the British retreat from Burma in ’42 when Whitamore—who was leading a caravan of wounded out of the jungle—and Crosby first met. The caravan is out of gas and the (unseen) Japanese are closing in. Crosby and his Indian NCOs shepherd Whitamore and the ambulance drivers through the jungle to a fuel depot only to return to find those left behind with their throats slit. Holden doesn’t skimp on the butchery and makes the most of the bigger canvases that the “prestige” and “oversized” format allows. His character designs feel in the spirit of Bill Maudlin’s bedraggled and put-upon Willie and Joe if they were drawn by English cartoonists like John McCrea or Steve Dillon, straight-forward framing, characters who have open faces like flapjacks, and everyone sweating like they’re in Eightball. While Holden shows pluck by drawing droplets of perspiration streaming down the character’s faces to depict the jungle heat, it’s a tough look to pull off, regardless. Being a veteran of Ennis’s war comics, Holden’s depictions of vehicles are spot on, excelling at WWII aircraft in all their stately grace. As the series continues, it will be interesting to see how Holden transitions from fields full of aircraft to the close fighting of jungle warfare which he does here in a limited sense with the march through the jungle to the fuel depot. (One suspects there will be more sweat.) Atmospheric conditions concern colorist Matt Milla too, who makes the most out of cool blue twilight nights and the dusty dun days of Burma. As the convoy takes to the skies, Milla uses a shade of dark magenta that gives the scene a feeling of being both funereal and upbeat. As with any oversized comic book, the colors do as much work as the drawing when it comes to conveying scale and setting.
Napoleon is supposed to have said, “war is 90% information." Ennis takes the General’s bon mot to heart in The Lion & The Eagle. There's a lot of history and politics to cover and a lot of context to chew on (perhaps that's why Aftershock coughed up the extra dough to give this story the "oversized, prestige" treatment or maybe because Steen needed the extra space to fit all those text boxes and word balloons). Ennis asks readers looking for acts of bravery or any action at all to trust in a bit of military intelligence every soldiers know well, "hurry up and wait.”
At least, until issue two. Maybe.